BAPTISM of Our Lord (C)
(Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7; Acts of the Apostles 10:34-38; Luke 3:15-16, 21-22)
There was an atmosphere of tense expectancy among the crowds of devout Jews thronging to John by the banks of the Jordan: there was something about the man -- his solitary life-style, his ascetic demeanour and powerful words – all of which made him seem like one of the old-style prophets whom the present generation had only heard spoken of as belonging to what seemed a dim and distant past. There was, however, something yet more fascinating about John the Baptist: an undeniably mysterious something which was causing many to think that he might possibly be the promised Messiah -- the Christ, as St. Luke puts it -- for whose coming devout Israelites had been praying for centuries. Although John did his best to dampen such expectations of him, nevertheless, people who came crowding to him for baptism were so centred on his personality that they probably did not even notice the figure of one more young man quietly joining the queue moving forward for baptism.
However, with the approach of that young man John’s ministry was nearing its climactic fulfilment, and his true purpose and identity were about to be revealed: for that young man had once been brought (while still early in His mother’s womb) to John (himself then about to be born of his mother Elizabeth) for John’s pre-sanctification in view of his life’s work ahead and personal destiny. And now that young man – Jesus of Nazareth – was appearing before John once again, being brought this time by the inspiration of His heavenly Father for both His own Personal commissioning and manifestation in Israel and for John’s fulfilment as supreme witness and faithful forerunner:
He must increase, I must decrease.
Jesus, having long recognized and, since His ‘coming of age’ as a son-of-the-Law, openly declared God to be His most true and only Father, had come -- despite His youthful longing to be immediately doing His Father’s business -- to appreciate that His duty to Mary His mother, and to Joseph while still alive, required that He return with them to Nazareth: there, He grew in grace and favour before God and men to the fullness of His human maturity. But His longing to be about His Father’s business was ever abiding and increasing over the years as He waited and watched in all the circumstances of His daily life and professional work, above all, however, in His Personal prayer and participation in synagogue worship, for His Father’s call to Messianic work.
He had come to hear of John the Baptist’s prophetic activity and of its effect on many of Israel’s faithful, and He had begun to wonder if He should be there, where people were openly acknowledging their need of God, and where His Father was manifestly at work. Oh, how He longed to seek out His Father’s traces and find out His will for Him! And thus it came about: Jesus joined the crowd of God-seekers around John; listening and watching not so much for John -- His now publicly-acclaimed relative -- but for His own supremely beloved and, as yet publicly unknown, Father.
However, when that apparently indistinguishable young man was actually receiving John’s baptism a voice spoke from heaven and a dove descended upon Him: John saw the dove and perhaps heard the words spoken; the people however -- though they sensed the unique atmosphere of sacred presence -- saw and heard nothing humanly distinct, because the words from heaven were directed not to them but to the young man Himself:
When Jesus had been baptized and, (as He) was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are My beloved Son; with You I am well pleased."
Jesus had indeed understood His Father’s inspirations aright!!
John, for his part, was not unprepared for such a vision, since God had told him that:
One mightier than (he was) coming, Who (would) baptize (the people) with the Holy Spirit and fire.
As a result, John was eager and able to recognize Jesus when he saw:
the Holy Spirit descend in bodily form like a dove upon (Him).
John might even have been permitted to hear those words addressed to Jesus by the voice from heaven, but such personal words from the Father to His only-begotten Son may have been too intimate and too holy for even one so exalted as John the Baptist to be allowed to overhear. Consequently, we in Mother Church should recognize that we are wonderfully privileged to know not only what the Jewish penitents surrounding John and Jesus by the Jordan certainly did not know, but also what perhaps even John the Baptist himself was not allowed to hear; and that, of course, would be in perfect accord with the words Jesus was to speak later concerning John (Matthew 11:11):
Amen I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
Nevertheless, whether or not he heard the words, John most certainly saw the Spirit descending like a dove on Jesus, and would have immediately recalled what the Scriptures told of Noah in the beginning (Genesis 8:10-12):
Noah again released the dove from the ark. In the evening the dove came to him, and there in its bill was a plucked-off olive leaf! So Noah knew that the waters had diminished on the earth.
Likewise, when John saw the Spirit descend like a dove on Jesus it is quite possible that he was prophetically privileged to appreciate that mankind’s ancient servitude to sin was coming to its end and that they would be enabled to find, once again, acceptance and peace with God through this mysterious young relative of his, Jesus, now standing before him, dripping water and engrossed in prayer. John knew well those words of Isaiah which we heard in our first reading:
Here is My servant whom I uphold, My chosen one with Whom I am pleased! Upon Him I have put My Spirit; He shall bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry out nor shout, a dimly burning wick He will not quench, until He establishes justice on the earth; the coastlands will wait for His teaching.
Indeed, it was with such a One in mind that he himself had told the waiting people:
I am baptizing you with water; but One mightier than I is coming, I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of His sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
The Son, with Whom the voice of the heavenly Father declared Himself well pleased, was One with the Spirit in the glory of His Father; He was therefore able, as the Messianic leader, to receive the fullness of the Holy Spirit in His human nature and, indeed, would shortly ‘deploy’ that human fullness of Holiness and Power for the very first time by means of a victorious encounter with mankind’s arch-enemy, the Devil, in the desert acknowledged to be the Devil’s very own dwelling-place, before entering upon His public ministry:
How can anyone enter a strong man’s house and steal his property unless He first ties up the strong man? Then He can plunder his house. (Matthew 12:29)
We learn from subsequent words of Jesus spoken shortly before His conclusive encounter with Satan on Calvary, with what dispositions He had received His baptismal endowment of the Spirit and had entered upon that initial contest against Sin-Personified at the beginning of His public mission (St. Luke 12:49):
I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!
Jesus received in His own humanity the fullness of the Spirit so that subsequently He might pour out that Spirit over humankind as God’s Gift in and through His Church. For the hearts and minds of those true disciples who would have faith in, and give obedience to, Jesus could only be cleansed of their native sinfulness by such a Gift, Who, in His cleansing activity would indeed show Himself to be a Spirit of divine fire: purging, purifying, and preparing a new People of God, able to witness in the power of the Spirit to the name of Jesus Christ Saviour for the eternal glory of the heavenly Father and the salvation of mankind.
That ardent longing of Jesus to ‘set the earth on fire’ was, indeed, the very purpose for which, having risen from the dead, He expressly equipped His Church, the very work for which He confirmed His Apostles and commanded them to spearhead:
When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together. And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were. Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. (Acts 2:1-3)
John the Baptist spoke of the work that Jesus’ baptism would accomplish when he declared:
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in His hand to clear His threshing floor and to gather the wheat into His barn; but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.
And that was how John, the greatest of Old Testament prophets, understood the image of fire. However, that is an understanding we can and should appreciate more fully in the light of the subsequent work of Jesus here on earth and of His Holy Spirit in the life of the Church. The Spirit would indeed ‘burn the chaff’, but first of all in the hearts of His chosen ones; and the greater their obedience and docility, the more they would allow Him a free hand in their lives, the greater would be the blaze of purifying love He would kindle and stoke up within them. For the world at large, however -- for those stumbling and hurting themselves in the darkness of sin -- He would first of all show Himself to be the Spirit of Love and of Truth, a tongue of fire enabling the Apostles and prophets of Mother Church to tell forth the love of God and proclaim His Good News of peace for all men and women of good will (Matthew 10:20):
It is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father Who speaks in you.
People of God, let us learn from the baptism of Our Lord something of the nature of our vocation.
If the Spirit of Jesus is to be heard by the world around us, a deeply sinful world delighting in its own disfigurement … if He is to be heard and appreciated by them in the manner of that beautiful word-picture painted by the great prophet Isaiah (52:7) who said:
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the One bringing good news, Announcing peace, bearing good news, announcing salvation and saying to Zion, “Your God is King”;
if, dear People of God, we are to help our world encounter Jesus as He Himself wanted (Luke 4:18) to be found by them:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free;
then we must implore the Spirit of Jesus to work in us as fire, as purifying fire in our very deepest selves, purging us ever more and more from our personal sinfulness, and enabling us to commit ourselves ever more whole-heartedly to Our Lord and His work. That is the only spirit of sacrifice, the only testimony of fraternal love, that can make us true disciples of Him Who sacrificed Himself for the sins of the world.
We cannot trust in our own presumed zeal and good intentions as does the proud, post-Christian, society around us; for what is needed most of all today is not that we – whether as individuals or as a social body -- pass off ourselves as good people doing good things we have thought up for ourselves without needing to acknowledge any help from a supposedly authoritative and guiding God, but that the Spirit of Jesus is able to find a welcome in the hearts of humble men and women of our day, thanks to Mother Church’s authentic proclamation of the Good News of Jesus, and our own deepest prayers and most sincere endeavours to allow the Spirit of Jesus -- the ‘Gift’ of God and of Mother Church -- to work fully and freely in us, leading us along the ways of Jesus: ways of authentic self-sacrifice for the good of our brethren, and of humble gratitude and praise for the glory of our Father in heaven.